I like to think of myself as a tenacious person, not someone who shrinks in the face of adversity. When the going gets tough, I grit my teeth and power through, or I find a different, easier way to approach the problem. After a single day of travelling with this massive army of the North, I’m ready to call it quits and risk the Emperor’s retribution. Bring on the charges of mutiny, because this is the worst.
The main problem is there’s too many people. I’m not privy to our exact numbers, but I’m guessing it’s at least a million soldiers answering the call to Central. Hearing the number doesn’t sound too impressive, but when I sat down and thought about it, it really blew my mind. Assuming the average person is fifty centimetres wide, if every soldier here lined up shoulder to shoulder, they’d stretch for five hundred kilometres. That’s more than six days of marching or a quarter of the journey from the Wall to the Society Headquarters. If my job was to speak with every soldier here for one minute each and I worked eight hours a day without break, it’d still take me almost six years to finish.
That’s not including all the non-combatants. Spouses, children, cooks, labourers, retainers, drivers, stable hands, and more, their numbers easily dwarf our own. All I can see is massive blob of people, horses, quins, and wagons stretching in both directions. Covered from head to toe in what I pray is only mud and slush, my appearance is as far from debonair as one can get. Since the expedition set out, I haven’t had a single moment of silence whether it be due to the percussive clatter of marching soldiers or the clamouring racket of a million muttering voices. Whichever way the wind blows, it carries the rank stench of body odour and manure as it splatters soiled snow across my body to steal away my warmth and comfort. Figures bustle about as they prepare to settle in for the night, hastily assembling their shelters at the side of the road, over thick mud, thawed and churned by the passing of tens of thousands of boots and hooves.
Things can only get worse as untold numbers of troops and wagons from every city in the north join us throughout our journey to Nan Ping. I have a headache just thinking about the logistical complications. Even with the entire province working to supply our army, feeding so many mouths on the move is already difficult enough, so how does the Emperor expect to feed at least four times our number gathered in one place?
Luckily, smarter minds than mine are (hopefully) hard at work solving the problem and they assure me I have nothing to worry about. All I have to do is wait for Rustram to send whatever food is available for my fur-babies to nom on. As if sensing my thoughts, Mafu cranes his neck and fixes me with a plaintive stare, his chittering cries both adorable and heart-rending as he pleads for treats. One would think he’s been starved for days instead of the tubby, over-fed glutton he is. His begging is indirectly rewarded as Pran and Saluk arrive bearing fruits and meats, making them my pets’ favourite people for a few short minutes.
I’m so thankful for Rustram, Dastan, and oddly enough, Ulfsaar. I’d be completely lost without them as all three are vital in keeping my small, two-hundred and eighty strong retinue running like a well-oiled machine. Baatar and Akanai both tried to teach me the basics of command but I’ve been having trouble putting things into practice. I’m not what one would call an organized person. I see a problem, I fix the problem. Doesn’t seem so bad an approach, but with more people comes more problems. Too many problems and things grind to a halt while I’m busy patching them up, which is… less than ideal. A good leader sees an issue and fixes it before it becomes a problem, which just goes to show that choosing leaders based on strength of arms is stupid. Instead of leading thousand-man retinues, I should be a standard grunt with wiser, more tactical-minded folk telling me where to go and what to do.
Not that I’m a great at taking orders either. I have problems with authority, mostly because I like to challenge everything I’m told. Sun rises in the east? Maybe. We’ll see in the morning, but until then, who can say? Honestly, a soldier’s life really isn’t for me, and I’m not just saying that because I’m miserable.
With all the higher-ups swamped by the minutia of army management and my people doing my job for me, there’s little for me to do. Since it’s supposedly bad for morale if I’m seen doing manual labour or menial tasks, I’m left to wander around and supervise as my retinue sets camp. Somehow both unblemished by the day’s travel, Lin and Guard Leader join me on my walk around camp, trailed by two bears, two cats, and one fat quin. In a few weeks, I’ll have sixteen rabbits hopping along behind me like a little horde of voracious buck-toothed cuties. Squeeeeeeee-
Stop it. You’re a Second Grade Warrant Officer and ostensibly the number one talent in the north. You can’t be walking around with a goofy grin on your face while thinking of bunnies, no matter how adorable they might be. It’s undignified. Go look at the bunnies, give them a pat each for one last hit of cuteness to tide you over until later. Whistling for Mafu to approach, I give my fat floof a chin scratch before lifting his saddlebags to reveal the bunnies. Instead of fifteen floppy-eared, nose twitching rabbit kits staring back at me, I discover all the rabbits are still curled up in their compartments, with many of them snoring lightly.
Peeking at the bunnies, Lin tilts her head and strokes Tawny One’s belly, the adorable little brown bun asleep on his back. “Wakey wakey little bun-bun. You’ve been sleeping all day so it’s time to come out and play, ya?” Tawny One proves unresponsive to Lin’s prodding as do the other bunnies she checks and my heart sinks with worry. Are they sick? Bicorn rabbits raised in captivity have a tendency to die due to mysterious circumstances, but I thought having their momma around would keep the little bun-buns alive. Nooooo! Tawny One, Thumper, Flopsy, Hopper, Quake, Cinnabun, Peanut, Ginger, Pepper, Bugs, Lola, Buster, Babs, Fluffy Bunnkins, and George! Don’t leave me!
“Calm yourself.” Guard Leader’s bored voice snaps me out of my downward spiral and I turn to her in desperate search of answers. Nestled in her arms is Mama Bun, also fast asleep and snoring just like her babies. Following my train of thought, Guard Leader nods and says, “Yes, this is due to the idamare, and yes, it was to be expected. How to explain… The plant contains a high amount of energy and the deep sleep helps them process it.”
Relieved by the news, I ask, “How long will they sleep for?”
“A day? More?” Guard Leader shrugs, not exactly inspiring confidence. “No longer than three. These creatures eat whole Spiritual Plants in the wild, roots and all. They wouldn’t survive if they fell asleep for extended periods of time.”
Before I can berate her for her irresponsible feeding, another thought strikes me. “Wait, will the babies be okay? They’re so young but they ate the same amount as Mama Bun and she’s not awake yet. They won’t explode because of too much energy will they?”
She takes her time answering, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. “An explosion is unlikely, and while the idamare provides them with more than enough nourishment…” Guard Leader pauses and it takes all my self-restraint to keep from shaking the answer out of her. “…If they sleep too long they’ll die of thirst.” Another shrug. “That’s why I said no longer than three days. Their fate is beyond our control.”
My poor bunnies… “If you knew this then why didn’t you… I dunno, test it out before hand? Feed them a smaller portion or feed only one or two of them?”
A third shrug. “It did not occur to me there might be an issue until you brought it up.”
Although her expression is hidden behind her veil, her tone and posture scream indifference. It’s as if she wasn’t the sole culprit of this whole debacle but merely an innocent bystander offering her expertise out of goodwill. Nonsensical expertise at that, I can think of a dozen things that could go wrong before my sweet bun-buns die of dehydration. That’s not even an issue, I can straw feed them water if necessary…
Staring at this mysterious, arrogant warrior who I know so little about, I add one piece of information to her character sheet: Guard Leader, for all her physical prowess, combat expertise, and political power among the Bekhai, is an idiot of the highest order. Spiritual Plants are basically steroids on steroids and she fed an entire stalk to baby bunnies who aren’t even a month old.
Swallowing my anger, I head out in search of Taduk, with Lin hopping on Mafu to keep an eye on the bunnies. While we walk, I ask Guard Leader, “How much?” The blockhead warrior tilts her head ever so slightly, unable to discern my meaning. “For the Spiritual Plants you took from Teacher. How much to buy them back?” Before she feeds another poor, unsuspecting animal and boils it from the inside out. And because Taduk wants them back, but mostly the first thing.
With a dismissive snort, Guard Leader turns her nose up at my inquiry. “I made the offer to Taduk. You have nothing in your possession which interests me.”
Huh… Interesting. I’m like, stupid rich. I mean, I’m strapped for gold but I have a vast fortune tied up in Spiritual Hearts and stolen artwork and Guard Leader knows it. This begs the question, what does Taduk have that interests her? Could it be… Does she want his medical expertise? Or is she more interested in healing of a sexual nature?
Bow chicka wow-wow…
Taduk should go for it. He’s a handsome man in the prime of life and I bet Guard Leader is smoking hot. Every great warrior is. It’s probably why she wears the veil, gets too many spontaneous marriage proposals without it. It’d be nice if my Teacher had someone looking out for him, he’s a little bit of an airhead and Lin isn’t much better. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both sweet and I love them, but they’re… quirky.
Then again, is Guard Leader really the woman for the job?
Trying to play cupid, I test the waters with a casual remark. “You know, Teacher’s been caring for those Spiritual Plants for a long time now. He takes miniscule cuttings every year and tries to raise a second plant, but he’s been unsuccessful so far. It’s his dream to cultivate a garden full of Spiritual Plants, says he could improve millions of lives if he’s successful. There’s so many ailments which can be fixed with a simple treatment but the scarcity of Spiritual Plants makes it so only the wealthiest can afford them.”
“A fool’s dream and a fruitless endeavour.” Guard Leader shows no signs of surprise or remorse over ruining Taduk’s dream, or at least making it a little harder to accomplish. Forget it, my teacher is way too good for this bully. “These Spiritual Plants are the result of fate and fortune, the Mother’s bounty for her children to harvest. They serve no purpose whilst planted in the dirt, so why not put it to good use?”
“…Feeding pet rabbits is good use? I mean, they’re my pets and I’m thankful for the gift, but it hardly seems like the most… efficient use of idamare. A single stalk can put an end to seizures caused by-”
“Bah. You sound just like him. You think I wasted the idamare on your rabbits, but I see things differently. Even if you save sixteen humans, how many years might those humans live?”
She pauses long enough for me to realize her question isn’t rhetorical and she’s trying to figure out the math. Oh you poor, dumb woman. “Assuming a hundred years of life per person, then sixteen hundred years in total.”
Tentatively shaking her head like she thinks I’m wrong but doesn’t know enough to disprove it, Guard Leader say, “Yes, sixteen… hundred…”
Oh, that’s my bad, language derp. “One thousand six hundred.”
“Yes.” She’s much more confident this time. “But, by feeding the idamare to these rabbits, they might live for two, three hundred years each before dying of old age. Longer if we feed them more Spiritual Plants.” Switching to Sending, she adds, “Considering she is on the cusp of forming a Spiritual Heart, the mother rabbit is anywhere from one to three thousand years old. She even has a chance to reach divinity and live an eternal existence in human form, all of them do.”
I’ve never heard anyone refer to Ancestral Beast status as ‘divinity’, but I can see why certain people might worship eternal, beautiful people who wield enough power to destroy entire cities. More importantly, if Mama Bun is three-thousand years old and STILL this stupid, I’m gonna have to side with Taduk and say she has infinitely close to zero chance of reaching ‘divinity’ status.
I mean… she tries to eat Aurie’s fur and gets upset because it isn’t tasty. She’s done it five times now. She is not a smart animal.
Hm… Can I feed Spiritual Plants to the quins, bears, and cats? I’d like if they lived forever, or at least long enough to keep Lin and Mila company after I’m gone. Be super weird if they started talking though, I’d rather not cuddle and sleep with talking animals. Mmm… I shouldn’t be thinking like this, it’s depressing and Teacher will be upset if he finds out.
Thankfully, Taduk doesn’t throw a fit when we ask him to check on the bunnies, only ‘harrumphing’ four or five times through the whole process. After getting a clean bill of health, I settle down to cook dinner as thanks, not caring if it affects my retinue’s morale. Since we’re travelling under military escort, we’re forced to abide by military protocols which means I can’t run off to eat with my family, and my retinue still isn’t great at cooking. Since officer lodgings are smack dab in the middle of their troops, I’m separated from Alsantset and Akanai by countless Sentinels while Baatar and Sarnai are even further away since my Mentor has the dubious honour of leading the vanguard. Aside from Taduk, Lin, Guard Leader, her cronies, and my retinue, I’m pretty much surrounded by strangers.
Bekhai strangers who don’t want me around, can’t forget that.
Once the broth is boiling and noodles cooking, I step back from the fire to take a break, only to bump into an adorable little old man wrapped in a thick, wool cloak. With a hunched back and white beard, the old man is even shorter than Lin, although his shoulders are broader. He also sports a pair of silvered wolf ears peeking out of his hood while his similarly coloured tail half-heartedly wags behind him as he gives the air a few perfunctory sniffs. “Food smells good,” he says, fixing me with a pointed look. Although his face is wrinkled and has more age spots than I can count, his eyes are sharp and crystal clear, blue as the sky on a clear summer day.
Be on your best behaviour. Even though he’s probably a camp follower, it doesn’t hurt to be polite. “Would you care to join us for dinner grandfather?”
“Bah,” he says, waving his hand as he takes a seat by the fire. “Who’s your grandfather? I ain’t never sired no snot-nosed, silver-tongue, amber-eyed brat.”
Tch, this old fart. Here to mooch a meal and can’t even be nice about it. “Sorry, I just felt it the most suitable appellation. Allow me to correct myself. If you don’t like grandfather, then which would you prefer: geezer or codger?”
God dammit. So much for my best behaviour. It’s the cuteness withdrawals, I can’t live like this. I needs. To cuddles. My Bun-Buns!
Maybe it’s my overactive imagination, but I sense a warrior’s past in the old man’s steely glare, as if he were some peak expert of yesteryear. Time spares no one however, as he looks older than any half-beast I’ve ever met. After a heart-wrenching pause, the old man barks with laughter as his perfect teeth flash in the firelight. “You got stones kid, I’ll give you that. The worthless boy I been saddled with acts all polite on the outside while cursin’ me for dead on the inside, but can’t say I blame him. His mama ain’t no shrinking violet, she’ll spank him something fierce if he took after you. Call me whatever you like,” he says, “long as you gimme a big ol’ bowl of them noodles. Don’t skimp on the venison either, come, come, come.”
Relieved he wasn’t offended, I give him a hearty helping once the noodles are cooked. He doesn’t seem interested in making conversation, so after a few unanswered questions I leave him to eat in peace while I sit with Lin and Taduk. Captivated by my culinary skills, the old geezer finishes his entire bowl, soup, bones and all, even helping himself to seconds without asking. It’s no big deal, the elderly should be treasured and he could use the food. His thin frame looks frail enough for a strong wind to knock over.
A familiar face emerges from the crowd as Huu arrives, his face twisted in a concerned frown. “I asked you not to wander off.”
“Bah,” the old geezer replies, taking a swig from his gourd. Alcohol, and strong alcohol judging by the smell. He didn’t offer to share either, the stingy old miser. “Emperor’s laws, army’s rules, brat’s requests, I don’t recall agreein’ with any of em.”
Putting aside my misgivings, I smile and wave at Huu. “Hey. Long time no see. Where’d you disappear to for so many months?”
“Training.” Huu’s curt reply and gruff manners throw me for a loop, my good friend not even sparing me a glance. Offering the old geezer a hand, he puts an end to our impromptu reunion. “Come, we must return to camp before someone notices my absence.”
Despite grumbling all the while, the old geezer takes Huu’s hand and allows the younger half-wolf to help him up and the two of them disappear into the night without so much as a thank you or farewell. Noticing my frown, Lin leans against me and whispers, “I’m sure Huu’s just tired and worried. I doubt he meant to be rude, he probably hasn’t even eaten yet, ya? Spent all his time looking for the old man.”
“Yea, you’re probably right. Can’t blame him for being a little cranky, travelling is bad enough without babysitting a difficult old man.” Kissing my sweet wifey on the cheek, I feign nonchalance while pulling Baloo into my embrace, holding him close like an oversized teddy bear. Maybe Lin’s right and I caught Huu at a bad time or maybe he caught wind of my near-Defiled status and is avoiding me like the other Bekhai.
Until we know for sure, who can say?
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